Speaking at an Intellect event this week (don’t worry, the group is a trade body for the UK technology sector, not some type of meeting of great minds!) much of my content touched on the role in-house legal teams play, and it occurred to me that with much of my focus on law firms, I haven’t been showing the in-house community much love. And let’s be honest, they need it. With their business colleagues wanting faster responses, more commercial insight and a greater range of advice (new markets, new geographies, new regulations), there are more fires to put out at a time when strategic direction is more valuable than ever.
The question of where the in-house team can add value has long been debated, but often the business sets conflicting priorities for their in-house colleagues. On one hand the board may push the general counsel to get his or her team to give more proactive advice that facilitates the growth of the business (help shape our thinking about which markets we should enter, review acquisition plans with us), the human resources department may have their own needs (help me up-skill the managers so they manage their employees better and avoid claims) and the front line commercial folks are screaming for support to do deals and bring in revenue. In reality who has the loudest voice (or longest job title) may determine what gets done, but bar the odd token off-site meeting, there is precious little time to reflect and plan things more effectively.
Compounding this, the in-house team are often measured (and critically, rewarded) by a set of metrics divorced from the strategic activities that can create longer term value for the business.
So what can be done? How can our legal firefighters be free from the need to run up another tree to save a trapped feline, and spend some time thinking about fire prevention? The answer will of course vary by organisation, but a good starting point is understanding the stakeholder community. Who are the key stakeholders for the legal team? What are their real priorities? How are they measured and what will constitute success for them (at an organisational and personal level)? Once priorities are understood, the next step is to map these against where time and resource is being spent at the moment. The majority of in-house lawyers would recoil at the idea of recording their time, and while I am not advocating recording time on a 6-minute-unit-law-firm-kind-of-way, I do think it’s important to have some hard data about where time is being spent. Peter Drucker addresses the reasoning for this in his excellent book “The Effective Executive”.
Once the in-house team have an idea of what their stakeholders’ priorities are, what their resource profile is and how those resources are spending their time (and this includes external counsel as well as the in-house team), then questions can be asked which will help facilitate a different way of working. The answer may be in organisational design, it maybe in communication, it maybe in the balance of internal and external resources, it maybe in addressing skills gaps (or indeed a host of other areas), but the point is that the team can start to make much more informed choices about where they spend their time to create value for the business. More value means more love, something that in-house teams deserve.